The Doodlebug: A Homemade Tractor

Built-from-scratch homemade tractor, or doodlebug, keeps on ticking.

| August 2012

Probably the most common farmer-created implement in the early move from simple horse power to mechanical motive power was the homemade tractor. Dozens of companies produced tractors that were expected to replace the horse on America’s farms. The variety of such offerings was almost mind-boggling, but there was one common denominator: Farmers needed money to buy them. Most farms were small. Although they provided the essentials of life for the farm family, few generated a substantial amount of cash. For a farmer to obtain a new tractor, money had to change hands.

Although it was quite evident that more work could be accomplished with a tractor, the small farmer couldn’t always come up with enough resources to buy one. That problem was addressed in a couple of ways. Some companies provided a cheaper alternative by selling kits used to convert cars and trucks into tractors. The most common conversion involved Model T Fords since they were almost ubiquitous nationwide. In a typical conversion, the vehicle’s wheelbase was shortened, a heavy-duty rear axle was substituted and large, cleated rear wheels were installed. Some method of providing lower gearing was incorporated so the marginally powered engines could actually accomplish farm fieldwork.

The affordable option

Farmers who built their own homemade tractors found an even more economical option. Any old motorized vehicle was a candidate for conversion; any mechanical components available were utilized. Out-of-pocket costs were nil. Since every farmer-created tractor was different, only a few accurate observations apply to all of them.

Heavy-duty rear axles were generally salvaged from trucks. In those days, trucks had axle ratios like 8-10:1 (car ratios were more commonly 4-5:1). Those lower gears were supplemented by using two transmissions. The first transmission could be put in first gear, which meant that first gear in the second transmission was multiplied three or four times. That provided enough power to pull agricultural implements.

Putting that power to the ground was a major problem because car/truck-based tractors lacked adequate weight for good traction. Cleated steel wheels partially made up for that handicap. When the power-to-traction equation was adequate, another problem raised its ugly head. The mechanical components utilized were rarely strong enough for the heavy work asked of them. Burned-out clutches, disintegrated transmissions and broken axles were common.

In spite of the drawbacks of homemade tractors, thousands toiled successfully on the farms of America and helped make horse-powered agriculture a thing of the past. Collectively they have been given the title “doodlebug,” and enthusiast organizations exist in some areas.

11/13/2017 7:08:03 PM

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